Many monasteries with the Augustinian order were already very progressive in the Middle Ages: the monks present went about their business in separate toilet units and were also able to wash their hands there. However, they were twice as likely to be infected with intestinal parasites as the general population, who had long lacked such facilities. That’s what a study by Tianyi Wang of the University of Cambridge and her team showed in the “International Journal of Paleopathology.”.
The team examined soil samples from graves that came from various cemeteries in Cambridge. While in the oldest cemetery of the church, all the saints next to the castle were buried mainly people of low social standing at that time, wealthy citizens who shopped there beside the monks were buried within the walls of the monastery. However, the two groups can be easily distinguished on the basis of some characteristics such as metallic clothing items. In total, Wang and Co. sampled 44 tombs from the period between the 10th and 14th centuries, the sediments of which were sifted for the remains of certain parasites such as roundworms and whipworms: the eggs of the animals are very strong and can survive in the ground for a long time.
Scientists considered people to be infected only if they found parasitic eggs in the pelvic area – where they must also find their last resting place after intestinal decomposition – or if the number of such eggs was four times more in the abdomen than in the head, or foot. The contaminated soil used in the burial could have carried the eggs there as well.
In fact, Wang and colleagues found elevated levels of parasite eggs in 11 of 19 monk tombs examined, but only in 8 out of 25 cases in the rest of the population. Studies from other European cemeteries regularly showed evidence of parasites in about a third of the dead: the value could therefore correspond to people’s exposure to worms and the like at that time. In contrast, the proportion of monks is much higher, although they lived in more sanitary conditions.
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